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Editorial | Rally around the forgotten Americans of Puerto Rico

The island of Puerto Rico, home to 3.4 million citizens of the United States, remains almost entirely without electricity and telecommunications and is coping with severe shortages of food and drinkable water almost a week after being hit by Hurricane Maria. But that communications blackout is no excuse for the island's virtual absence from news coverage over the past weekend, when mainland newspapers and television were more focused on football and the latest tweets by President Donald Trump.

The miseries wrought by Hurricane Maria will not dissipate soon. It is expected to take months to restore power. On Sept. 25 The New York Times reported that the hurricane has wiped out crops on the island. "There is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico," said one farmer. "And there won't be any for a year or longer."

If this kind of devastation happened on the mainland, the congressional delegation from the affected states would be all over cable news channels, making sure all of us were aware of the needs of their constituents and pressuring the president and the Senate and House leadership to take immediate action — perhaps by using the leverage of their votes on important pieces of legislation. But Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress. (Puerto Rico is represented by a nonvoting resident commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives.)

And if Hurricane Harvey had done as much damage to Houston as Hurricane Maria has done to Puerto Rico, a week after landfall there would still be round-the-clock news coverage. But few major news organizations ordinarily have a full-time presence on the island, and reports from local journalists have been hampered by a continued lack of cellphone and Wi-Fi service.

Over the Sept. 23-24 weekend, it became distressingly apparent that many U.S. voters need to be reminded that the residents of Puerto Rico are full American citizens. That means they are entitled to the same response from the federal government as the citizens of New York or Kansas would be if they were visited by a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Maria. Although the United States has long benefited from the geographical reach they provide, its strategic "possessions," including Puerto Rico, Guam and other territories, have been taken for granted and denied full political representation. Hurricane Maria is a reminder that this two-tiered system of American citizenship is neither democratic nor tenable.

This editorial originally appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of America magazine, a national Catholic weekly magazine published by the Jesuits. 

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